Undiminished by wars or hurricanes, Charleston continues to radiate gentility. Its hospitable residents still tend to dress up, maintaining the streets’ air of elegance, even in the face of increasing tourist crowds. And although the city has a dark side to its history — most of its grand mansions were built, one way or another, by enslaved African-Americans — Charleston doesn’t shy away from this aspect of its heritage.
Charleston has long drawn Civil War buffs — Fort Sumter is a 30-minute ferry ride from Liberty Square — but more recently, it has blossomed into a major culinary destination, as well. Like New Orleans, Charleston is surrounded by brackish wetlands that yield a bounty of fresh seafood, and also like New Orleans, Charleston served as a major port where people from Europe and Africa influenced one another’s cuisines. The Lowcountry recipes that followed made use of readily available ingredients such as shrimp, oysters and rice, combining them in ostensibly simple but immensely satisfying dishes. In fact, many people we encountered had journeyed to Charleston for the food alone.
Named for King Charles II after being founded in 1670 by British colonists, this patrician city sits on a sea-level peninsula where the Ashley and Cooper rivers meet the Atlantic Ocean. The entire palmetto-shaded core of the city is a National Historic Landmark, with narrow cobblestone streets lined by a living museum of more than a thousand carefully restored churches and homes, including glorious antebellum mansions ringed with piazzas and ornamental ironwork. Visitors have an entire spectrum of lodgings to choose from, ranging from grand full-service hotels to small bed-and-breakfasts with fewer amenities but an abundance of charm.
Civil War Submarine
One of Charleston’s most fascinating sights is the H.L. Hunley (1250 Supply Street, Tel.  743-4865), which saw action in the Civil War and is considered the world’s first successful combat submarine. The Hunley had been lost at sea for more than a century, before being recovered in 2000. Work continues on researching and preserving the vessel in a lab a few minutes outside Charleston’s historic center. Guided tours are available on weekends (reserve tickets in advance).
Preserved Plantation Home
Of the Charleston area’s many plantation homes, my favorite is the Aiken-Rhett House (48 Elizabeth Street, Tel.  723-1159). Rather than restore the mansion, occupied by the family until the 1950s, the Historic Charleston Foundation elected to preserve it, leaving the flaking wallpaper and crumbling plaster intact. Some rooms had been walled off for decades, their moldering furniture remaining as eerie reminders of the former occupants.
An Excellent Tour
Numerous companies offer tours of Charleston, but my favorite guide is the inimitable Laura Wichmann Hipp, a lifelong resident and founder of Charleston Tea Party Private Tours (Tel.  577-5896). After breakfast overlooking the harbor, Hipp led our small group around a private Italianate garden. We then toured the magnificent William Pinckney Shingler House, also usually closed to the public, and concluded with a light lunch in Hipp’s well-kept home. The experience was in every way a delight.
Beers & Cocktails
My favorite Charleston cocktail lounge is The Bar at HUSK (76 Queen Street, Tel.  577-2500), which also serves delicious bar food. Beer lovers shouldn’t miss the stylish Closed for Business (453 King Street, Tel.  853-8466), which has local microbrews on tap.